Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Psalm 12:2-3, 4. 5-6
Contrary to popular belief, it is Advent that is the true season of giving. Do you want this Christmas to be more joyful? Give. Are you hoping for some of the spirit you had as a child? Give something away. Are you struggling to fend off loneliness, disappointment, or regret? Give something up. The best preparation for Christmas is to give.
At this time of year, so much of life is a struggle. We struggle to remind ourselves that it’s Advent, even though the stores and our radios tell us it’s Christmas. We struggle to keep our cool in long checkout lines and busy parking lots. We struggle with holiday plans, trying to figure out how to keep feuding relatives at peace, how to stretch the budget, how to avoid that coworker who always has one too many at the office party. We struggle to meet a dozen obligations, to finish a hundred errands.
My mother knew this well. So every year, she made my brothers and sister and I give a Christmas present to Toys for Tots, a program run by the Marine Corps. A few weeks before Christmas, we would go to the store, and with our own money, pick out a gift for a fellow child in need. This was not a holiday tradition we graciously accepted. We would scream bloody murder, insist that this time Mom had gone too far, that we would not go, that she could not make us, that no greater misfortune had ever been visited upon the children of Adam. Mom was unmoved. She didn’t try to reason with us, didn’t try to explain her position, but simply told us how it was going to be. All the way to the Sears store on 63rd Street, we would wail like innocent men on the way to the gallows. One year, my brother Joe yelled out, “But I’ve been good all year! Why are you punishing me?” One year, my brother Phil “forgot” to bring his money, but my mother said, “That’s okay. You have $4.38 at home. Pick out something that costs that much.” (I remember thinking, “How did she know exactly how much money he had?”) One year, I suggested that, rather than giving a boring game or a plain old doll, we should give some needy family my baby brother. He was only two years old - how attached to him could my parents really be? So I pleaded with my Mom, “You always say we are God’s greatest gifts! Let me keep this G.I. Joe, and give Jimmy to some needy family!”
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist addresses his audience as my mother spoke to us. He offers no explanation, takes no questions, considers no objections. He tells the people how it is going to be. He tells one group after another to prepare for Christ by giving something up. He does not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs, but to turn away from greed, give up extorting money, and be satisfied with their wages. He does not tell tax collectors to quit their jobs, but to turn away from greed and give up taking more than what they are entitled to. He does not tell the crowd to abandon their children and their livelihoods, but to look in their closets, start to count their coats, and give anything over “1” to the poor. He tells them to look in their kitchens, and see the goodness of the Lord, and share that with the poor. John the Baptist has a simple message today: Christ is coming. If you want to be ready, start giving things away. Not as desperate people throwing things off a sinking boat to make it lighter, but as joyful people clearing space for something even greater.
How often do we think of Christ solely in terms of what he does for us? But what better way to prepare to celebrate Christmas, the feast of God’s Self-emptying, than by offering a gift to Christ? Talented musicians have the truest appreciation for terrific music. Skilled athletes have the strongest admiration for stunning accomplishments. People who themselves give nothing rarely give true thanks for a gift from someone else, but great givers have a grand gratitude for a generous gift.
Like fire, Christ needs air to grow. Like all of us, Christ needs space to breathe. Like the crowds, we may be filled with expectation, but if our hearts are more filled with lists of gifts to get and give, stuffed with plans for comings and goings, how will Christ squeeze his way into us? Without space or air we become like the inns of Bethlehem, which could find no place for the unborn Christ. Without breathing room, we become like Herod, who could find no place in his heart to welcome the gospel but set his hand to extinguish the light of the world. Without some emptiness, some holy emptiness which elbows its way into our homes and our schedules and clears a path and sets a chair and lights a candle in readiness for the Lamb of God, another Christmas will come and go and we will be fuller but no richer, more comfortable but no more at ease, a little more sad and a little more lost and a little less sure what all the fuss was about. This Advent, John the Baptist tells us, warns us, that Christ will come, and though we cannot stop him, we may miss him unless we set some part of ourselves aside and make room for his coming.
This altar reminds us of what we must do. The bread and wine do not hold onto what they are, but gladly empty themselves to receive the risen Christ, willingly step aside until all that is left is color and shape and taste. No loaf of bread or glass of wine could have a greater destiny than to give themselves away that Christ may come to us. No man or woman or child could have a greater destiny than to give themselves away that Christ may come to men, women, and children in need. The Eucharist trains us to give, as my mother trained my family, as John the Baptist trained the crowds.
Will Christmas be white this year? Who knows? Will we get everything we want? Probably not. Will it feel the way Christmas did when we were six-years-old? Definitely not. Will it be joyful, peaceful, filled with delight? Absolutely - if we prepare. If it rains all day or hits 70 degrees, if someone takes our favorite parking space and our favorite pew, if the television breaks and the dinner is dry, Christmas will be wonderful - if we get ready now, if we lighten the load, if we make some space. Then we will fulfill the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.” Christ will fill as much of us as we allow. The more generosity we show to others, the more we empty ourselves so that the poor may be filled, the more room Christ will find in us this Christmas. So go to confession and be done with your sins. Use the poor box on the way out today to lighten your load. Speak to your priest and find a neighbor in need and pour out your compassion. Seek out one person who has disappointed you, betrayed you, wounded you, and spend your forgiveness like water. Then “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding” will fill your hearts.
Give; give something away; give something up - and you will be full.